By Steve Hubrecht
The issue of bighorn sheep fatalities in Radium in alarming numbers continues to generate attention and plenty of provincial government officials, local government officials, Parks Canada staff, and concerned citizens are working toward solutions.
In the meantime, however, are still being hit, with a total of eight having been killed since the start of the new year, and the man perhaps most dedicated to their is stepping back from the cause emotionally charged, chaotic atmosphere that is starting to surround some of the sheep fatalities.
Radium Bylaw Officer Kent Kebe has also worked with the provincial Ministry of Forests, Lands and Natural Resource Operations (FLNRO) on contract to track and help Radium’s resident bighorn sheep for three decades. A big part of that work has included picking up dead bighorns on the highways and roads in and around the village, particularly on Radium Hill, immediately south of the village on Highway 95/93.
But at last week’s Radium council meeting, on Wednesday, Feb. 9, Kebe told council “I will no longer be going to the hill. I will no longer be picking up dead sheep. I just can’t keep doing it.”
Kebe relayed to council that just the night before, on Tuesday, Feb. 8 there was another bighorn fatality, after a sheep — a pregnant ewe — was hit by a vehicle on the hill. He described the scene, noting that there were many vehicles pulled over at the side of the road, while traffic continued to whip by on Highway 93/95 at high speeds, and that some people were even trying to hold the sheep while he lay dying and kicking.
“You need a break. You need to find some peace. The drama and emotions that go along with this have been intense,” said Radium Mayor Clara Reinhardt, adding she had heard descriptions of the scene from others, who called the chaos around the dying sheep “a gong show.” Radium Councillor Dale Shudra mentioned that he had driven past the accident site and said it was “unsettling.”
Kebe noted that both the provincial Ministry of Transportation and Infrastructure (MOTI) and FLNRO are working hard on the bighorn issue, but said that if incidents continue as chaotically as they did on Feb. 8 “in the end I worry there’s going to be a tremendous accident. There’s going to be a human fatality.”
Reinhardt noted that online donations for a wildlife overpass near the Radium Hill and wildlife fencing stretching between Radium and Dry Gulch have now reached $34,000 (just three days after the option to donate went live on the village’s website), but “that is a long term solution…we have to get through the season, and it can’t all be on one person.”
The bighorn traffic fatality on Feb. 8 was the fourteenth one since the sheep’s fall rut started in late November. It is also the eighth traffic fatality since the start of January. The number is strikingly high, considering that Radium averaged 10 sheep vehicle fatalities per calendar year up until 2021 (the first year there were TransCanada closures), when there were 15. That grim record seems poised to be shattered this year, with eight vehicle fatalities already in 2022, barely a month and half into the year.
“And that’s just what we’ve recorded. There’s almost certainly more, possibly a lot more, sheep getting hit, that we don’t know about,” said Kebe, adding that “April will be another high mortality month” because that is when the green-up of the grass on Radium Hill happens, and it coincides with the planned spring TransCanada closure.
Councillor Mike Gray asked Kebe how many sheep are in the Radium bighorn herd, and Kebe replied there are roughly 130.
“So 14 sheep killed this winter. That’s 10 per cent in vehicle strikes in just the last six weeks. That is insane,” said Gray.
“It is quite high,” Kebe agreed.
“And not sustainable,” chimed Reinhardt.
Gray later addressed Kebe, “I can see in your eyes how difficult this is. If I could give you a hug, I would. The world ‘love’ is an understatement for how much you care for that herd.”
Kebe may step back, but bighorn fatalities in Radium will still be tracked by the local Conservation Officer Service and by Mainroads (which is the contracting company that does highway snow clearing and maintenance).
Anybody who sees a bighorn get hit should call the Report All Poachers and Polluters (RAPP) hotline 1877 952 7277.